It was March 2011. A few weeks earlier I had left my job as managing editor of the Fergus Falls Daily Journal.
I relocated to Princeton as the editor of the Union-Eagle. It was a homecoming, of sorts, because I had worked for ECM Publishers Inc. from 1993-98 at the Mille Lacs County Times in Milaca.
On that March day I drove from Princeton to the Mille Lacs County Courthouse to track down some court records. Afterward, I went to Hobnetti’s for lunch – for the first time in 13 years.
As I sat in a booth by a window, I pulled out my cellphone and snapped a picture of Milaca’s downtown water tower.
You know the one. It’s behind the Milaca museum and stands tall like a watch guard over the city.
I took that photo and immediately posted it on Facebook for all my friends to see, with the words, “I’m back home in Milaca.”
The water tower might be old, and it isn’t used anymore as part of Milaca’s water system. But it’s a throwback to Milaca’s past and a reminder of the small town that many of us live or work in.
To me, the water tower says “Milaca.” The worn black letters spelling out “MILACA” on the water tower’s silver, weathered background prove it.
I was saddened recently when I learned there’s a chance the water tower might not be part of our landscape as we move into the future.
The water tower was erected in 1905, according to city officials. It had its roofed painted in 1997. I was still working in Milaca and hadn’t yet moved on to Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, when the roof was painted.
But the water tower isn’t in the city’s system anymore.
As one City Council member said recently, the water tower “looks rough.”
I think that’s part of its charm.
But old things have a way of deteriorating, and that’s what is happening with the water tower.
Combine that with the fact that it’s nothing but ornamental, the costs associated with maintaining the water tower might be more than the city is realistically willing to put into it. On July 19 the City Council had a very, very brief discussion about the future of the water tower.
I for one, would hate to see it go. It has proudly served the city for more than 110 years.
There’s a collection of historic Milaca postcards online, and our water tower stands proudly in many of the photos.
She’s there in a 1908 bird’s-eye view of Milaca. She’s in a 1910 birds-eye view of the city, too.
In a 1911 postcard highlighting Milaca’s electric light plant, it’s the Milaca water tower that’s standing proudly next to the building.
A 1915 postcard has a caption that reads, “A small portion of Milaca, as the birds see.” I’ll tell you this, from what I can tell, the birds got a pretty good view of the water tower back in 1915.
As Milaca moved into the 1920s, a modern post office was built at 105 Central Ave. S. Today, that building is Milaca Chiropractic Center.
A postcard was issued to commemorate the new building, and the water tower sits smack dab in the middle of the photo as if the building has a marvelous hat.
In the 1930s, Milaca City Hall was built by the Works Progress Administration, a federal program that put unemployed people to work during the Depression.
The city hall later became the library and is now the Milaca museum. In a 1937 postcard depicting the new city hall, the strong, steel legs of the water tower are standing tall in its photo.
The water tower shows off all her glory in a 1953 aerial view of the city, and in a 1972 aerial view, as well.
In a Milaca history book that sits on my book shelf at the Times and Union-Eagle offices, the water tower peeks out from behind a photo of the old Allen and Olson Store, as well as a wooden structure that was home to the Farmer’s Cooperative Creamery. In a 1950s photo of Coast to Coast Hardware on main street, the water tower is standing a few blocks away in an alley.
One of my favorite pictures of the water tower is in a 1970s photo of Johnson Oil, back when it was a Phillips 66 station. Johnson Oil still operates on the same corner, but the 98 cent gas prices are long gone!
The water tower has stood over Milaca for over a century watching the good and the bad. It has seen the rise and fall of the family agriculture industry and the changes that brought to the city. It also saw the impact of the Great Depression, World War II, and Vietnam War on our community.
During building booms, economic declines, and a general change in small-town life altogether, she watched from high above the streets of the city.
And as a new 500-gallon water tower was built in the city’s industrial park, she stood proud, though her replacement was inevitable.
I surely hope the downtown water tower can be restored to a point where she can stand for many more years to come.
There’s a lot more history coming down the line for her to stand watch over.
Jeff Hage is the editor of the Mille Lacs County Times. Reach him by email at [email protected]